Orhan Pamuk was famously put on trial for the crime of “insulting Turkishness” after he complained in a magazine interview that his fellow Turks kept silent about the Armenian genocide. The charges, though dropped, proved to be an embarrassment to Turkey on the world stage, all the more so when Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. But after reading “A Strangeness in My Mind,” Pamuk’s new novel, the idea that he is out to insult or defame his country seems especially ludicrous. The book could fairly be described as a love letter to modern Turkey, and above all to the city of Istanbul.
In telling the story of Mevlut — a village boy who moves to the city in the late 1960s and spends the next four decades scraping by as a peddler — Pamuk does for Istanbul something like what James Joyce did for Dublin. He captures not just the look and feel of the city, but its culture, its beliefs and traditions, its people and their values. Of course, Pamuk is not an uncritical observer. He zeroes in on the vices that he sees as characteristic of modern Istanbul, such as political corruption and private greed. But because Mevlut is such a sweet-tempered character — a Turkish everyman, who remains deeply innocent while passing through all kinds of ordeals — “A Strangeness in My Mind” remains a sweet-tempered novel.
The title comes from Mevlut’s reflection, late in the book, that his nightly peregrinations around Istanbul have led him to identify himself with the city, and the city with himself. “Mevlut sensed that the light and darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttime landscape of the city. . . . Walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head.” During his years in Istanbul, Mevlut holds a series of petty jobs: He sells yogurt, ice cream and chicken on the street, and he is a waiter at a cafe and a junior inspector for the electric company. But it is in his job as a boza seller, the trade he plies every night, that Mevlut comes to represent the essence of the city.
Boza, the reader learns, is an old-fashioned Turkish drink, a thick brew made from fermented wheat, which for generations was sold on the streets by peddlers. It was popular in Ottoman times because it allowed observant Muslims, who wouldn’t drink wine or spirits, a socially acceptable way to get drunk. By the time Mevlut comes to Istanbul, boza has lost its popularity; in modern, secularized Turkey, just about everyone drinks raki instead. But when people hear Mevlut’s distinctive call, they are seized with nostalgia and buy a cup for old times’ sake, complete with the traditional chickpeas and cinnamon on top.
In this way, boza serves Pamuk as a perfect metaphor for his main themes: tradition and modernity, conformity and hypocrisy. The Istanbul where Mevlut lives is a ballooning city, its population growing from 3 million to 13 million over the course of a few decades. This gives it a Wild West atmosphere, where old-fashioned ethics and mores are frequently cast aside. For instance, Pamuk describes the not-quite-legal process by which new immigrants would stake out plots of land on the outskirts of the city, then sell them to developers as the city limits expanded. The result was dangerous, haphazard construction and widespread fraud, but also a kind of prosperity and growth.
It is in the realm of sex and love, however, that Pamuk shows the collision of old and new values most vividly. The incident that will shape Mevlut’s whole life takes place at a family wedding, where he spies a young girl with striking eyes and instantly falls in love. Because it would be unthinkable for him to talk to her openly, Mevlut can only sneak her love letters through a go-between, his cousin Süleyman. As Pamuk shows in a comic passage, he knows absolutely nothing about her, so all of his letters end up being about eyes: “Your eyes are like ensorcelled arrows that pierce my heart and take me captive,” and so forth. After years of this, the girl agrees to run away with him. But as the reader soon learns, things don’t work out as Mevlut planned, leading to complications that will define the course of his life.
Yet the novel grants Mevlut some recompense. While few things in life seem to go his way, he remains an enviable man, thanks to his inner serenity and his profound sense of place. Through his eyes, Pamuk describes the main events in Turkish history over the last half century: political coups, strife between Turks and Kurds, earthquakes, even a Turk’s-eye view of 9/11. Mevlut remains on the edge of all this action; like a novelist, a peddler sees life from outside, at an angle. But that allows him to see it more vividly and poetically than most people. This makes “A Strangeness in My Mind” one of Pamuk’s most enjoyable novels and an ideal place to begin for readers who want to get to know him.
Adam Kirsch is the author, most recently, of “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander.”
By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf. 624 pp. $28.95